Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

Why Interfaith Services are a Problem

Many interfaith ceremonies practice exclusion, not inclusion

Photo credit: Gregory Tracy/The Boston Pilot
Inevitably after major disasters, particularly those involving the senseless loss of life such as last week's Boston Marathon bombing, an interfaith service of some type will take shape, where various religious groups will come together to mourn and heal. This happened in Boston last week, with a high-profile service that included religious leaders from various faith communities: Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions.

In a modern pluralistic society such as ours, it not only seems natural, but arguably even healthy, that various religious groups could come together in a time of crisis. Indeed, considering that these groups have historically justified bloodshed against one another based on their theological differences, their coming together for an interfaith service, recognizing the importance of our common humanity, can only be seen as a positive development.

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Nevertheless, to humanists and other nonbelievers, such interfaith services are often problematic. Though the "interfaith" concept is perhaps commendable, the specifics of how interfaith services are often conducted and presented are not. That is, most interfaith services are quite exclusive, not at all inclusive, yet they are perceived by the media and the public as representing virtually all citizens. Interfaith services are generally accepted as a forum where "everyone" comes together, but in fact they usually represent an exclusive club.

Exacerbating the misunderstanding is the fact that interfaith services often become a platform not just for various religious leaders, but for politicians. The Boston service, for example, included speeches by both President Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, adding a decidedly civic element to a religious service.

The inclusion of governmental leaders in an interfaith religious ceremony such as this adds to the misperception that the event is a reflection of the entire community. Even the word “interfaith” misleadingly conveys a sense of community unanimity, and the addition of key secular leaders to the event – leaders who, unlike the religious leaders, are indeed supposed to represent all citizens - magnifies that falsehood.

The entire exercise leaves nonbelievers with a mix of emotions and opinions. Some complain about their exclusion, saying that any interfaith ceremony should include humanist celebrants or atheist representatives. But others, uncomfortable with the word “faith” and wanting no part in an interfaith service, complain not of their exclusion, but only of the participation of government officials.

Both of these positions have valid arguments supporting them. Realistically, of course, no comprehensive interfaith service could represent every single religious tradition, unless we are willing to include Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Jains, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, and the hundreds of other religions practiced by good citizens. Such a service would go on for days, if not weeks, so of course some religious traditions must be excluded by necessity. Among all minority religious demographics, however, the nonreligious/nontheistic arguably have the strongest case for inclusion, since they number about twenty percent of the population nationally (and higher in Massachusetts).

But any non-governmental parties organizing an interfaith event have the right to invite (or not invite) whomever they wish, so the stronger argument might come from those seculars who ask only that governmental officials not preach from the pulpit at interfaith services. Have your interfaith service, they say, and please don’t invite us nonbelievers – but don’t present the ceremony as a civic event that is validated through the participation of government leaders either.

Of course, if a president or governor wishes to attend a religious service, they are free to do so. But seizing the church microphone to give a speech during the religious service – and a religious speech at that – raises many concerns. At a certain point we are no longer talking about the president's right to go to church, but the public's right to not have their government endorsing religion. The religious ceremony itself is already being inaccurately portrayed in the media as a defining event to unite the entire community, and now the head of state is preaching from the pulpit to at least implicitly endorse that perception.

That's not to suggest that a president should never take the pulpit in a church. At a funeral, for example, or perhaps a wedding or other service, there would be no issue. But in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack, when a nation and community are seeking unity but simultaneously vulnerable to "us against them" thinking, the head of state's high-profile participation in a ceremony that seems to define "us" in a way that excludes nonbelievers is troubling.

Prejudice against atheists and other nonbelievers is fed by quasi-public ceremonies that encourage the conventional wisdom that America is a very religious country. When the media and politicians promote the idea that an "interfaith" service somehow represents the population at large, that of course all good citizens believe in God and identify with a major faith tradition, it's little wonder that the public's general opinion of nonbelievers remains low.

Interfaith services have their place, and presidents and governors do as well. In a time of civic crisis requiring leaders who can unify all good citizens, the former is not the place for the latter.

David Niose's book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is available here.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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